Homeland agency charged with outreach

When President Bush signed the Homeland Security Department into law last week, he triggered activity on two fronts.

Internally is the much-publicized effort to bring 170,000 employees from nearly two dozen agencies into a single department, if only virtually.

Externally is the often overlooked effort to coordinate the department's work with a multitude of organizations across state and local government and the private sector. This second front, many observers say, is equally vital — and equally at risk for failure.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 highlights more than a dozen different requirements to ensure that federal agencies and their state and local counterparts have access to the information and technology they need to carry out their jobs.

The law, for example, sets up a central office led by the undersecretary of management to coordinate with state and local governments and requires the undersecretary of information analysis and infrastructure protection to develop policies and procedures for sharing law enforcement information.

It also sets up several partner organizations, such as the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, which will support long-term technology research through grants to public- and private-sector organizations.

Yet while the act spells out the objectives, the means for reaching them is left vague, observers say. So while the intentions are admirable, the execution is a concern, they say.

"We've now spent over a year battling over what this thing should look like — moving boxes, creating new ones — now we're going to spend much more time making sure those new boxes work the way they're supposed to," said Don Kettl, executive director of the Century Foundation's Working Group on Federalism Challenges in Homeland Security.

There is no way to tell at this point, however, whether the single structure outlined in the law is the best way to make the nation more secure.

"You could do as much harm as good with a one-size-fits-all, heavy-handed approach," said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc., an information technology consulting firm. "Execution is everything in this business."

Creating Accountability

Many instances of reorganizations in the public and private sectors have shown that creating a new entity does not guarantee new service, much less the intended results, observers say.

"Congress can say you shall coordinate or you shall be damned to hell forever, [but] that isn't necessarily going to be done," said Richard Varn, chief information officer for Iowa. "It all comes down to people and good processes and good organization and just good implementation."

Homeland security officials have the benefit of a head start, Suss said, because the Bush administration's transition team "will provide them some momentum going into this."

The administration already decided on four basic department divisions: border and transportation security; emergency preparedness and response; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear countermeasures; and information analysis and infrastructure protection.

Clearly, the first task is bringing together the different agencies and organizations that will make up each of the divisions, such as the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and others merging to form the border and transportation security division.

But there is no assurance that the new department structure will make that task any easier than it was when the agencies were scattered across other departments.

"No matter how much you say you are going to make this one-stop shopping, this is still a huge organization with sweeping policy mandates," Kettl said.

Clear accountability structures — holding specific people responsible for ensuring first responders get everything from bulletins about possible terrorists in their area to the right technology to detect disease outbreaks — should help significantly when it comes to making coordination and information sharing happen, experts say.

"They need to have single points of accountability as well as contact," Varn said. "Someone has to have the role of being identified as the accountable person for making sure [that coordination happens]."

And progress that already has occurred could accelerate.

Some coordination and information sharing has occurred, but cultural and organizational barriers still existed, said Patrick Schambach, associate undersecretary for information and security technology and TSA's CIO.

"With accountability now going to be consolidated to a large degree in this new agency, we can start to expect real information sharing," he said.

A Need for Union

State and local agencies, which will be doing much of the day-to-day work in the homeland security fight, ultimately hope the new department will help create a single strategy for communications and information-sharing technology.

"We have not been able to address those concerns with the existing agencies, so certainly I'm very hopeful that the whole Department of Homeland Security will be able to do that," said Karen Anderson, mayor of Minnetonka, Minn., and president of the National League of Cities (NLC).

"Just the fact that those new agencies will be in one place [and] will be able to communicate with one another will be a head start for us," she said.

At all levels, one of the biggest challenges for IT leaders may be getting everyone to understand that resources for the information-sharing infrastructure are just as important as resources for vaccines and bomb-proof buildings in the homeland security effort, said Gerry Wethington, CIO for Missouri and president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

"Those are all important aspects in first responder communities and public health arenas, etc., but there's also a need for infrastructure growth and expansion to accommodate information sharing," he said.

"My hope is that that's recognized at the federal level; and when they begin to put their programs together that they set funds aside to make sure that they address the technology needs that are necessary to...support homeland security," he said.

Some state and local officials also are concerned that the department will not look at homeland security technology from a national perspective, said Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc., the technology division of organizations such as the NLC and the National Association of Counties.

Billions of dollars will be spent on procurement for information sharing and communications, but Homeland Security Department officials must develop a strategy to guide procurements based on needs and capabilities at all levels, Toregas said.

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A federal agency, a national mandate

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 underscores many ways the Homeland Security Department should work with organizations in the public and private sectors.

The department is expected to:

* Ensure compatibility of department databases and state and local systems.

* Create advisory groups to assess the needs of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

* Award grants to public and private groups for technology research.

* Improve policies and procedures for information sharing.

* Promote existing and new public/private partnerships.

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